I have spent the majority of England’s Euro 2020 behind Jordan Pickford’s goal, observing how Gareth Southgate’s revolving and evolving defence has avoided conceding in four consecutive matches. It may be a cliche but goals win games while clean sheets win tournaments, and England’s defensive muscle is the foundation of their success.
Southgate has ensured the defenders are well-drilled but what makes the England backline stand out is their communication and desire to play for one another. Five of the back six (including the goalkeeper) who started against Germany were in the side that lost to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, so they know each other incredibly well and have experience of tournament football, which comes across in how they play.
Once a tournament starts, each player knows they are seven games from lifting a trophy, so they have the added focus required to get through each match in a methodical manner. They know that one lapse in concentration can cost them glory, as they found out against Croatia. Luke Shaw was the least experienced defender at international level against Germany, with 13 caps, but he represented his country for the first time in 2014, playing in a World Cup in the same year.
Not only do the players have plenty of caps but also years together at club level. Kyle Walker and John Stones have had a fantastic season at Manchester City and the same can be said of Harry Maguire and Shaw at Manchester United. Players do not have much time to prepare for a tournament but this defensive unit has been part of the squad for a long time, helping them to create strong relationships. Countries that win major tournaments have squads with a high average of caps, and England’s back six in the last match averaged 36 per player.
The England defenders complement one another, providing a perfect balance with their personalities and attributes. Football nowadays is about fluidity, changing systems and tactics all the time; you’re never fixed in a 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 5-3-2 – it is constantly evolving. This group have the intelligence to adapt to each situation and formation. Playing under Pep Guardiola makes Stones and Walker adept at changing at a moment’s notice, and Trippier is working under one of the best defensive coaches in the world, Diego Simeone, so they are not fazed by any concepts.
Each opposition side are analysed by Southgate and Steve Holland, as they look for patterns in attacking play and come up with solutions to nullify them. They worked out Germany’s greatest threat was down the flanks, and Trippier and Shaw did superbly to stop crosses into the box. Ukraine will be a different proposition and it will be interesting to see whether Southgate sticks to a back five. If he reverts to four defenders, the players will be used to it even with the short turnaround.
Jordan Pickford has stepped up in this tournament. In the Germany game he was brilliant, constantly shouting at the backline. He’s judged by how many goals he lets in, so he is repeatedly badgering people to ensure he gets defenders in the right position to limit shots. The best goalkeepers organise and get everyone in front to do their job for the team. If Pickford is organising his backline, he has very little to do. Against Germany he made brilliant saves, his distribution was very good, he looks fit and is passionate – he’s got everything.
Pickford can appear quite stressy but Maguire is brilliant at showing he is listening even if it might go in one ear and out the other. Stones has the ability to say: “Relax, give me the ball even under pressure,” and Walker is there to mop up, communicate and to have those conversations, as is Trippier.
The importance of the two in front of the defence cannot be overplayed. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips are aggressive, they win first and second contacts, they can play with the ball but they also make things difficult and uncomfortable for the opposition and they just screen in front. They have the physicality and mobility required in addition to technical ability. Their strength is reading the situation before it happens and that is a gift. N’Golo Kanté has that: the ability to sniff out where you can win the ball, be on the front foot and nick it.
Against Germany the plan was to let the base of eight players ensure England did not concede and leave it to the talents of the front three to get the goals. It is not all about the forwards who start the match but those who can come off the bench, too. England’s replacements are the most exciting around, with Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden ready to play their part when called upon. Keeping the scored at 0-0 for 70 minutes means Southgate can bide his time and send on someone such as Grealish to attack tired players, which against Germany allowed Shaw more space on the overlap as the Aston Villa man cut inside to change the dynamic.
England are only three clean sheets away from potential glory, something this defence will take in its stride. Winning championships is built on good defence and England’s has a foundation of communication and togetherness, fine attributes that have brought them this far and can send them further.